Politics and CIA forecasts

The CIA's estimate of Iranian nuke development is "absurd," according to Henry Sokolski, director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, as quoted by the Christian Science Monitor. Sokolski notes that the US developed its nuclear weapons in less than a decade.

"Are we saying the Iranians are further behind technically than we were in 1940? It's absurd."

As several commentators have noted in these pages, there is reason to think that the new National Director of Intelligence, John Negroponte, was simply skunked, specifically by Valerie Plame's anti—proliferation outfit at CIA. Contrary to the CIA optimism, the Defense Intelligence Agency is said to estimate a two year deadline for Iranian nukes. That is about what Israeli intelligence suggested some time ago. Israel is likely to have far better human intelligence on the Iranian regime than we do. The CIA doesn't like to do HUMINT, while Israel's life is on the line. It cannot afford bureaucratic blind spots.

The leaked NIE is extremely troubling for several reasons.

First, because the CIA has an abysmal track record in predicting nuclear weapons development — in India, Pakistan, and even Libya. Those failures go back all the way to Stalin's acquisition of nukes. There is therefore no historical record to justify high confidence in any current estimates. There are now several short cuts to nuclear weapons development that did not exist in Stalin's time.

Libya obtained nuclear designs from China, just as North Korea did from Pakistan. Iran could explode a low—tech radiation bomb tomorrow ——— a so—called "dirty nuke." Any fanatical regime with access to a hospital radiation unit could do that.  For all those reasons, the ten—year "date certain" is irrationally overconfident, to say the least.

Second, a deliberately overoptimistic estimate has serious policy implications. Sokolski speculates that the NIE may have been leaked because

'There may be some involved in the report who are frightened that Bush would use anything more imminent as a pretext to bomb, or others who got cold feet after the Iraq WMD intelligence that went wrong.'

Either possibility implies gross corruption. The CIA is not supposed to meddle in policy, and it is not supposed to tailor its estimates just to make up for past mistakes.  If the NIE leak undermines Bush administration efforts to forestall Iranian nukes, it is endangering our safety in the most irresponsible way imaginable.

Third, the NIE leak is one more sign that the CIA has become politicized. Valerie Plame's friends at the CIA nonproliferation unit are in fear of their jobs, because there are two new brooms at the top of the heap: Porter Goss at CIA and John Negroponte as the National Director of Intelligence. So their copious leaking is presumably designed to protect their careers.

If any of the wild optimists are fired, they can go to their good friends in the media, claiming to be  whistleblowers being persecuted by the evil Bushies for telling the truth. The New York Times would lap it up. If you think the Plame—Wilson affair made banner headlines, wait till you see this.

Fourth, need I mention that such leaks are just what the media firestorm about Valerie Plame is all about? CIA leaks are good; Presumptive Karl Rove leaks, on the other hand, are evil. 

In his new book Countdown to Terror,   Congressman Curt Weldon, Vice Chairman of the House Intelligence Commmittee writes that:

'The gross incompetence in the intelligence community over the last decade, combined with the current rebellion of intelligence community leaders, especially at the CIA, justifies a dismissal of present leaders in all agencies and across the entire intelligence community. The straightforward solution would be to fire everybody above the level of GS—15.' 

Those are strong words: 'gross incompetence,' 'rebellion of intelligence community,' and 'fire everybody.'  But I have not noticed that Mr. Weldon was a wild—eyed headline—hunter.

I sincerely hope he is wrong, but I wouldn't make a bet on it.

The CIA's estimate of Iranian nuke development is "absurd," according to Henry Sokolski, director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, as quoted by the Christian Science Monitor. Sokolski notes that the US developed its nuclear weapons in less than a decade.

"Are we saying the Iranians are further behind technically than we were in 1940? It's absurd."

As several commentators have noted in these pages, there is reason to think that the new National Director of Intelligence, John Negroponte, was simply skunked, specifically by Valerie Plame's anti—proliferation outfit at CIA. Contrary to the CIA optimism, the Defense Intelligence Agency is said to estimate a two year deadline for Iranian nukes. That is about what Israeli intelligence suggested some time ago. Israel is likely to have far better human intelligence on the Iranian regime than we do. The CIA doesn't like to do HUMINT, while Israel's life is on the line. It cannot afford bureaucratic blind spots.

The leaked NIE is extremely troubling for several reasons.

First, because the CIA has an abysmal track record in predicting nuclear weapons development — in India, Pakistan, and even Libya. Those failures go back all the way to Stalin's acquisition of nukes. There is therefore no historical record to justify high confidence in any current estimates. There are now several short cuts to nuclear weapons development that did not exist in Stalin's time.

Libya obtained nuclear designs from China, just as North Korea did from Pakistan. Iran could explode a low—tech radiation bomb tomorrow ——— a so—called "dirty nuke." Any fanatical regime with access to a hospital radiation unit could do that.  For all those reasons, the ten—year "date certain" is irrationally overconfident, to say the least.

Second, a deliberately overoptimistic estimate has serious policy implications. Sokolski speculates that the NIE may have been leaked because

'There may be some involved in the report who are frightened that Bush would use anything more imminent as a pretext to bomb, or others who got cold feet after the Iraq WMD intelligence that went wrong.'

Either possibility implies gross corruption. The CIA is not supposed to meddle in policy, and it is not supposed to tailor its estimates just to make up for past mistakes.  If the NIE leak undermines Bush administration efforts to forestall Iranian nukes, it is endangering our safety in the most irresponsible way imaginable.

Third, the NIE leak is one more sign that the CIA has become politicized. Valerie Plame's friends at the CIA nonproliferation unit are in fear of their jobs, because there are two new brooms at the top of the heap: Porter Goss at CIA and John Negroponte as the National Director of Intelligence. So their copious leaking is presumably designed to protect their careers.

If any of the wild optimists are fired, they can go to their good friends in the media, claiming to be  whistleblowers being persecuted by the evil Bushies for telling the truth. The New York Times would lap it up. If you think the Plame—Wilson affair made banner headlines, wait till you see this.

Fourth, need I mention that such leaks are just what the media firestorm about Valerie Plame is all about? CIA leaks are good; Presumptive Karl Rove leaks, on the other hand, are evil. 

In his new book Countdown to Terror,   Congressman Curt Weldon, Vice Chairman of the House Intelligence Commmittee writes that:

'The gross incompetence in the intelligence community over the last decade, combined with the current rebellion of intelligence community leaders, especially at the CIA, justifies a dismissal of present leaders in all agencies and across the entire intelligence community. The straightforward solution would be to fire everybody above the level of GS—15.' 

Those are strong words: 'gross incompetence,' 'rebellion of intelligence community,' and 'fire everybody.'  But I have not noticed that Mr. Weldon was a wild—eyed headline—hunter.

I sincerely hope he is wrong, but I wouldn't make a bet on it.